A Christmas Tradition
Posted on January 21, 2014

Alicia straightens her black veiled cap as it hovers above the rims of her silvery eyebrows. It slides forward with every precarious step down the sparkling walkway. The pins are not keeping it in place.

“Be careful Alicia, there’s ice everywhere. The town cleaned up the snow, but this cold weather isn’t helping.”

“Albert,” Alicia says as the brisk wind attempts to pick the cap up off her white curls. “Let me hold your arm.”

“Of course.”

She clamps down on Albert’s wool jacket and takes a few careful steps.  “How was your drive? It wasn’t too foggy, was it?” She squeezes tighter.

“It wasn't too bad.”

“How are the kids?”

“They’re fine. The twins are with Vivian and her parents.”

They baby-step their way downhill, following the pathway to Teresa’s section. When they cross a flat surface, Alicia lets go of Albert’s arm and glides her hand across a snow-covered bush. Diamonds fall off of crystallized branches and jingle as they spill across the pavement. A familiar, painful ache engulfs her as she remembers a five-year-old Teresa playing dress-up with her studded hoop earrings. 

Albert and Teresa’s had planned to have children immediately after they got married, but an icy road on Christmas day ten years ago made it impossible. The winter storm immobilized hundreds of towns with mountains of snow, caused hospitals to overflow with frozen corpses, and extinguished the only bright star left in Alicia’s midnight sky.

Chilly tears form in Alicia’s eyes as she recalls the last conversation she had with her daughter on that fateful morning.

* * *

“Your father would've been so upset to know you didn't want to spend Christmas day at home. It’s been our tradition since you were born, to spend Christmas together as a family.”

Alicia picked up a wood-framed photograph of her husband and shook her head. Disappointment crossed her face. “Your poor father, God rest his soul.” She heard an exhausted sigh and quick footsteps over the line.

“Mom, please,” Teresa whispered. “The weather outside is terrible. There’s going to be more snow in the evening.”

“Why are you whispering? Are you in the bathroom?”

“I don’t want to wake Albert up.”

Alicia rolled her eyes and peeked out her kitchen window. She waved at a neighbor shoveling snow and mouthed the words “Merry Christmas”.

“You know, there’s nothing embarrassing about talking to your own mother on Christmas morning.”

“And Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve morning.”

“I knew it!”

“Mom, I’m not embarrassed.”

“He doesn't understand what it means to have a mother, to have someone who devoted their whole life to”

“Mom,” Teresa interrupted. “Stop it.”

“Right. I’m the one being unreasonable.” The whistling black kettle calls Alicia over. She lifts it off the gas burner and onto a wooden pad on the counter.

“It’s going to be at least a three-hour drive with all the traffic.”

“I understand.” Alicia took an exaggerated deep breath as she placed the chamomile tea bag into her mug. “It’s too much of a sacrifice. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be home alone with your father’s spirit to keep me company.”

A splashing sound disturbed the silence as Alicia poured the steaming water in. She lifted and dipped the tea bag repeatedly, giving Teresa a chance to change her stubborn mind before she’d present her next argument.

She didn't wait much.  

“I don’t know what I’ll do with the extra food. You know I bought a large ham because I know how much Albert loves my cooking. I even got some new glass containers for you to take home. Maybe I shouldn't have been so considerate.”

“I’ll see if the trains are running.”

“The trains have all been cancelled until tomorrow, something to do with the freezing rails. Those union workers will say anything to get the day off.”  

“Mom, they’re not cancelling the trains to get the day off. They’re cancelling the trains because it’s unsafe.”

“This little bit of snow is unsafe? In Fargo, a day like this, in the middle of winter, was a blessing.” She poured two teaspoons of orange-flavored honey into her tea and stirred counterclockwise.

“Yes, Mom, and you had to walk fifteen miles in twenty-degree weather and in two feet of snow to get to school.”

“That’s right. The teachers and the students never failed to show up. People had an obligation. They made commitments. Today, you promise one thing and do another.”

The bittersweet tea felt warm against Alicia’s tongue as she took a quick sip. She acknowledged the perfection of her drink with a long, flavorful lick. She’ll come. I’m her mother. She has to come see me on Christmas day. It’s our tradition.

“Mom…please…we’ll go tomorrow morning. I promise.”

The ceramic cup clinked against the black marble counter when Alicia set it down.  “Fine. Don’t come. But at least be honest with me. You don’t want to come because you want to spend the day with Albert, because your father isn't around anymore, because you hate our traditions, because I’m only your mother, because”

“Fine!” Teresa shouted. “We’re coming over!”

Alicia clapped her hands with glee as if she won a prize. “Wonderful Darling. What time should I expect you two?”

* * *

Alicia squints against the frosty wind. Why did I have to be so pushy? Traditions, what good are they now?

“Alicia,” Albert says, interrupting her trance and momentarily saving her from despair. “This road isn't as steep, but it does turn quite a bit. Hold onto me, just in case.”

With each step down the curvy path, Albert is reminded of the road leading to Alicia’s house that took over his command at the steering wheel ten years ago.  He’d handled the zigzag road many times before, but a deer caused him to swerve to the edge of the hillside. After tumbling and sliding through a hundred feet of forestation, his black sedan landed on its hood. Albert woke up in a hospital two days later with minor injuries and a concussion. The doctors told him Teresa died from traumatic brain injuries before arriving to the hospital.

Albert didn’t attend the funeral. He never said goodbye. He wanted to remember Teresa as he last saw her: happy, healthy, and full of life.

* * *

“Never mind what I said last night. If we leave right now we can get there before nightfall. Come on, it’s Christmas.” Teresa said while sitting on her knees in their bed, wearing her favorite reindeer-print fleece pajamas, begging with her powerful puppy-dog face.

The mumbling in the bathroom was exactly what Albert had suspected. “You spoke to your mother just now, didn't you?”

Teresa pressed her lips together into a straight line and shifted her eyes towards the bathroom door.

“Fine.” Albert flipped over the red and black flannel comforter and grunted when he stood up. “I’m going to be in a cranky mood if we get stuck in traffic.” He whipped the curtain shut once he saw the wintry landscape outside the window. “I’m already mad.”

She jumped out of bed and dragged Albert back in, kissing him playfully behind his right ear and tickling his midsection. “You’re so wonderful, do you know that?”

“Yeah, yeah…tell me later when we get to your mother’s house. And, I’m telling you right now, if she’s going to bring up the issue of paying for our wedding, then we’re going to have a very long visit.”

“Come on, Albert, give her a break. She’s got all this money and nothing to do with it. She could help us out.”

“She’s not paying for the wedding. I don’t want her to have a say in anything. She’ll drive you nuts, and indirectly drive me nuts.”

“She’s not as bad as you think.” Teresa rolled her eyes and looked sideways.

“Oh please. I've met your mother. She’s uses guilt to manipulate you.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to have a mom. Your mother died when you were five and you don’t have any mother-type women in your family. You don’t know what real guilt is.” Teresa huffed.

“No, but I know a jerk when I see one. I worked in sales for a very long time. She’s a shark, and you’re her prey.”

Her furrowed eyebrows matched her pouty lips. “You make her out to be such a bad person. She’s an ordinary mom who wants to give her daughter a spectacular wedding.”

Albert stood up and slipped on a pair of baggy blue sweatpants over his green polka-dot boxers. A red thermal jersey draped over his black tee shirt. “She wants to control your life. She would control our wedding if you let her.”

“It wouldn't hurt to let her pay for something.”

As soon as Albert pulled out a duffle bag from their closet, the solution hit him like a block of ice. “Why don’t we let her pay for the honeymoon?”

As the idea planted roots in her mind, Teresa’s eyes widened. “The honeymoon…It’s perfect.”

“I can’t believe I didn't think of it earlier. You and your mother can work it out. I don’t care where we go, as long as she doesn't drive you insane. And it’s going to be your job to make it absolutely clear that she’s not coming with us.”

Teresa’s eyes welled up with happiness. “She’s going to love it!”

* * *

“Oh Albert,” Alicia says as they turn the bend. She grabs onto Albert’s arm tighter than before, raising her other hand up to her nose to stifle a whimper.

I've got you Alicia. I've got you.”

She holds her breath for a few seconds and exhales profoundly as she steps onto the slush at Teresa’s section.

“It never gets easier Albert. You can start again, have a family with someone else, but for me it will never get easier.”

Albert bites back the sarcastic chuckle. I know what real guilt is now, Teresa.

He imagines Teresa smiling, somewhere, wearing her favorite reindeer pajamas, watching the snowflakes flutter and spiral outside a window. She gives him a soft, forgiving smile. Sorry I haven’t spoken to you in a while. You know how it is.

* * *

“What do you mean you've been talking to her?” Dr. Fitzpatrick asked two years after the accident. He creased his forehead at Albert and scribbled the disconcerting news in his notes.

I've been talking to her to keep her updated on my life, my therapy, about her mother.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick paused for a few blinks. “Has she replied?”

Albert laughed. “It’s not like that.” He rubbed his hands together and leaned forward. “You said I should write letters to an anonymous recipient, to get my feelings on paper, talk about my day, my emotions and whatnot. Well, I thought I would be therapeutic to talk to Teresa and tell her about my day, the way I used to.”

“But Albert, this won’t help you to move forward.”

Albert folded and unfolded his hands. “I know she’s gone. I don’t pretend she’s in our apartment.”

The doctor nodded, waited, and studied Albert’s shifty body language.

“I guess I talk to her spirit. She was my best friend. I used to tell her everything, even the little things.”

“Have you found it to be useful? Have you seen any changes?”

“I finally started sleeping through the night.” Albert said excitedly. “I haven’t slept this way since before.”

“Good,” he said with a pleased expression. “And what about her mother? Is she still coming over with food, to clean the house? How’s your relationship with her since you've been home.”

“Oh,” Albert adjusted himself in his seat. “She’s been great. We've been talking a lot lately, about the news, about her friends, my job… shooting the breeze.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick moved his pencil across his notepad. “Does she talk about Teresa?”

“No too often. Probably as much as I do.”

The doctor’s face scrunches in confusion.

“For instance, the other day I cleaned out my closet when she was there and I found a drawing Teresa created for my fortieth birthday. It was a cartoon drawing of an old wrinkly squirrel with big buck teeth and fat cheeks smoking a huge wooden pipe. Right underneath she wrote, ‘You are officially the cutest old squirrel alive’.”

The doctor sat quietly as Albert strolled through the memory.

“Well, I showed it to Alicia and told her about how Teresa loved drawing me as a cartoon squirrel because of my chubby cheeks. I showed her other drawings of us as little squirrels living in trees collecting acorns for the winter. Teresa used to spend hours, entire weekends, on these little ‘masterpieces’.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick writes steadily in his notes.

“I think Alicia really appreciated learning something new about Teresa.”

The baby blue sky outside the doctor’s office window drew his attention. It was a perfect painting of heaven with puffy clouds scattered about. He imagined Teresa perched on one of those cotton balls with her hands on her hips and her know-it-all smirk. “Teresa was right; she wasn't as bad as I’d thought.”

* * *

“What are you smiling about?” Alicia asks, as they pass the third of eight tombstones leading to Teresa’s final resting place.

“Something I remembered about Teresa.”

“Oh,” Alicia says in a delighted tone. “You still think about her?”

“Every now and then.”

“Does Vivian know?” Alicia’s eyebrows shoot up mischievously.

“Of course not. But if she knew, I think she’d understand.”

“Would she?”

“She knew Teresa was,” Albert swallows hard as the words materialize in his mind, “the love of my life.”

Alicia stops and stares at Albert solemnly. “I’m glad you met Vivian and started a family. I’m happy for you. I’m glad you could find happiness elsewhere. Not all of us are so lucky.”

There’s that wonderful motherly guilt again.

“But you do love Vivian, right?” Alicia asks as they walk past the fourth tombstone.

Although this question is tricky, somewhat a double edged sword, he answers honestly. He doesn't tiptoe around her landmines the way Teresa used to. “I love her enough.”

Alicia gives Albert a knowing glance. “Come on Albert. Aren't we beyond pretenses? You can tell me you love her.”

“I’m not lying, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Alicia stops to face Albert. “Then why did you marry her?”

“Because of Freddy and Jessie,” Albert lifts his eyes to the twilight stars in search of the right words. “They’re everything to me now. She made them possible. I love her enough to make her happy, to make my family happy.”

Alicia grimaces and puts her right hand up to smother another cry.

“I’m sorry, Alicia. I didn't mean to upset you.”

“It’s just that…sometimes I wonder what your children would have been like. It would have been nice to have grandchildren.”

“You know you can always consider my children your grandchildren. They love when you visit.”

“I know, Albert.” She gazes fondly at him. “I love you for that.” She breathes in unsteadily and exhales into the crisp air. “It would have been nice to have gotten to know Teresa’s children. That’s all.”

I know what you mean, Alicia.

* * *

“You haven’t told her yet?” Albert wrung the steering wheel as they drove off the highway and into her mother’s home town. He couldn't understand how a mother and daughter could see each other so often and be so distant.  “You’re almost three months pregnant. You’ll be showing in a few weeks. She’s going to notice.”

“You know how she is. She’ll be mortified. She’ll hate the whole having-a-kid-out-of-wedlock thing. I can hear her already. ‘What will my friends say?’”

“Who the fuck cares what her friends will say?”

“She cares.”

Albert chortled as he turned left onto an empty commercial boulevard. Red and green Christmas decorations hung above from one side of the street to the other, welcoming them into town and wishing them a “Very Merry Christmas”. Iron cast street lamps illuminated the piles of snow sitting along the edges of the sidewalk and atop the parked cars.  A cluster of people, bundled up to their ears, were running towards a diner on the corner where a Santa statue held up a sign that read “Open Christmas Day”.

“Your mother will be the first of her friends to have a grandchild. She’ll be the first to brag about it, the first to go shopping for expensive kids’ clothes. You have to know how to sell it to her. She’s a tough woman but everyone can be coaxed into a sale.”

“I suck at sales.”

“Yeah I know. Do you remember the jacket you tried to sell me the day we met?” Albert said playfully. “What was it…a thousand-dollar Pelle jacket?”

“My commission would have been a hundred dollars for that one sale.”

“And that guy swooped in under you.”

“Mi-shell was his name, a genuine French asshole.”

“He practically tugged on my shirt to get me away from you.” Albert laughed as he made a right turn off the commercial street.  “Poor guy, he didn't know I wasn't uninterested in the jacket. He really believed he had a sale with me.”

“He was so angry when you left the store. He was really angry when you came back to talk to me the following day.”

Albert beamed gloriously at Teresa. She leaned her head back against the headrest with her lips twisted upwards at the corners. The lengthy drive made her eyelids heavy, and being so close to her childhood home made her muscle relax. The warmth of her mother’s fireplace beckoned.

“Tell her,” Albert said tenderly as he turned left onto the winding street leading to her mother’s house. “I’ll be right there with you. I’ll spin it. Trust me. She’ll be happy.”

She interlocked her fingers on his right hand and planted a wet, sweet, delicate kiss on his right cheek.  “Okay. We’ll tell her today.”

* * *

“Hello Darling,” Alicia says when they finally arrive. “Merry Christmas.”

Albert helps her place a dried-up red rose atop the gravestone.  Every year, before the frost hits, Alicia clips new rosebuds from the rosebush Teresa planted when she was ten and dries them up. She picks the best one from the bunch and takes it to Teresa’s on Christmas Day.  “A pretty rose for a pretty girl,” she says as she pulls out her rosary beads.

Albert crouches down and places his own two flowers on the ground: a large calla lily and a small one. He’s thankful Alicia never inquired about the smaller lily. He was never quite sure if she knew, if the doctors had told her after the accident, but he never brought up the topic.

Then, out of nowhere, a bushy gray squirrel runs to the center of Teresa’s grave, digs up an acorn from under the light blanket of snow, stands on its hind legs and stares straight at Albert. Albert narrows his eyes for a two misty breaths before the squirrel skitters away to a nearby tree.  

He chuckles upwards at Alicia. She giggles, and a few seconds later she releases a loud cackle. “She must think you’re the cutest squirrel around,” she says while chuckling. Tears stream down her cheeks so fast she can’t find her handkerchief quick enough to wipe them.

“The cutest old squirrel. You forgot the old part. Imaging if I had my pipe!” Albert says as he helps Alicia search for another handkerchief in her purse. She can’t control her fit of laughter.

After a few minutes Alicia regains composure. “Let’s go so you can spend the rest of Christmas day with your family.”

As they walk back to their cars, Alicia discusses the idea of Albert no longer driving out on Christmas day to accompany her to Teresa’s grave. “I can get someone to escort me. They have services for these types of things, specifically for seniors. I’m sure your family wants to spend time with you on Christmas day.”

When the driver’s side door slams shut, Albert leans against the window. “You are my family Alicia.”

She nods once more, wishes Albert a safe journey home before driving off into the late Christmas afternoon.

Albert climbs into his truck, turns on the engine, and stares past his steering wheel. Did you see that squirrel? Of course you did. You probably sent it.

A sigh escapes him as he catches his sweet reverie slowly transform into the aching sorrow which used to consume him so much that he spent six months at Bellevue Hospital diagnosed with depression. It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but every now and then, especially during Christmas, Albert struggles with his memories. He wants them to fade away, to allow him to live a normal life with his new family, but he also wants them to stay. The worst thing he could ever do to Teresa is forget about her.

He recalls Teresa’s electric blue eyes, her contagious pixie-like laughter, the way she used to whisper “I love you” in the middle of making love, and other beautiful love-defining moments that will never again be, like the day they heard their baby’s heartbeat at the doctor’s office. It was the happiest day of Albert’s life.

Like menacing icicles dangling from above, his sharp memories take aim, piercing through years of therapy and meditation, causing a pain in his chest to burn so deep that he grabs hold of his shirt with both hands and wrenches the fabric until his knuckles turn white. His face contorts into the definition of agony as his defenses melt away.

No. Not again.

Quickly, he shuts his teary eyes and blows out air through his nose.  

Freddy and Jessie…Jessie and Freddy… Freddy and Jessie

The tenseness in his face dissipates and a sad smile creeps in. He can already hear the giggles when his children push at his knees and tackle him to the ground upon walking through the front door. They’ll race down the stairs or from across the living room while screaming “Daddy’s Home!” It’s become a daily ritual ever since second birthday last summer.

They would have loved to have seen that squirrel.

He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and pulls out his phone to send Vivian a few texts.

ALBERT: Leaving now. I’ll be home in a few hours.

ALBERT: Don’t eat dinner without me.

ALBERT: Remind me to tell you about the squirrel.

He stuffs the phone into his wool coat’s side pocket and gazes past the metal gates of the cemetery at the hazy red sun lingering above the horizon.

It’s getting late.

The low, monotonous hum of a news reporter fills the car when Albert turns on the radio to listen to the traffic report. He checks the time on his phone: four thirty. The GPS displays a one-hour car ride to his destination, clear roads all the way.

I have to go now Teresa.  He glances once more towards the setting sun.  I will always love you.

Albert puts the car into drive, steps on the accelerator, and heads on home.

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